The grip of Chinese Outbound Tourism on international politics

Photo by Ezreal Zhang on Unsplash

China’s navigation of the chess game that is foreign affairs and international politics is not only remarkably unique but incredibly strategic. Tourism is often disregarded in the discipline of international relations and politics, and outbound Chinese tourism is an unexplored phenomenon that has a significant impact on  Chinese foreign policy and international politics as a collective.

China has made no secret that it has intentions to increase its soft power. In 2017, Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forums’ annual meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech highlighting an evolution of power within the international stage and China’s palpable and ever-growing soft power, with Newsweek crowning the state as the “linchpin of global economic stability” afterward. It didn’t change China’s position within the international system in the traditional sense; its military or economy didn’t expand exponentially overnight, but its soft power grew nonetheless.

Soft power is central to China’s diplomatic aims in international affairs and its outbound tourism is a key component to achieving these goals. The political impact of tourism is often underestimated. However, the cultural exchanges made between traveling individuals are a tool for soft power. This coupled with the economic powerhouse of Chinese outbound tourism expenditure creates an exorbitant amount of soft power for China.

Contrary to its misleading name, “soft power” is extremely potent in politics. It is a term coined by Joseph S. Nye, defined as the “ability and intangible power resource” of a state to persuade or manipulate the intentions of other countries. Soft power is accumulative of powers that are cultural, political, diplomatic, and social so factors that tend to affect it are ideology, culture, and natural cohesion. It is distinct from hard power which consists of military strength, economic prowess, or scientific innovation.

According to Nye, soft power in conjunction with hard power are co-determinants of where a country lies within the international system but for China, its soft power is the king playing piece in its game of international politics.

China’s palpable soft power and its openness toward using it to shape the international stage in its favor is what makes Chinese outbound tourism fascinating. Chinese tourists generated $254.6 billion (US dollars) in 2019 alone. The interesting fact about this enormous expenditure is that even though the tourism is outbound and not benefiting the Chinese economy per se,  the Chinese government is able to utilise the expenditure of its outbound tourists to influence foreign policy in a way no other state in the world can.

Why? This is because they are the only state to be able to satisfy essential requirements. First, Chinese tourists generate an amount of revenue greater than most states. Secondly, they are an authoritarian state that has accepted that they must succumb to the ever-globalising nature of the world to survive economically. Therefore, Chinese citizens can travel and leave the state but only to other countries that are on a pre-approved government list.

This list is known as the ‘Approval Destination Status’ (ADS) list and is revered as a “memorandum of understanding on tourism” between China and a foreign state. These are the beginning stages of multiple agreements set in place between China and any given state with the end goal of reaching ‘self-paid outbound destination’ status, meaning that Chinese tourist could travel there formally. As of 2009, 145 countries were added to the ADS list by the Chinese government with 104 of them also being given self-paid outbound tourism status.

An authoritarian state, China can prohibit its citizens from travelling to certain states for any reason. In accordance with the Measures for Administration of Outbound Tourists by Chinese Citizens, Chinese outbound tourists cannot travel to other states. If a state is not on the ADS list it is not permittable for a Chinese citizen to voyage there.

The tight grip of China on the movement of its outbound tourists allows the state to use its ADS system as a political bargaining chip due to the endless lists of countries more than eager to reap the economic benefits that come with Chinese tourism. Many are willing to adapt or adopt by any means necessary.

The diplomatic leverage Chinese outbound tourism has within the international system is illustrated in its utilisation to strengthen Sino-African relations. China has made clear that it wants to become a leader in Africa through implementing soft power leverages such as the economic boom that Chinese outbound tourism provides. In a bid to strengthen Sino-African relations, China added eight African states in 2003 alone to the ADS list, with this number increasing in the following years.

China and South Africa have increasingly promoted one another in their respective states. With President Cyril Ramaphosa stressing the importance of tourism to South Africa’s future, China has been an essential component in achieving these aims. Chinese tourists spent on average 1900 rand per person in 2018 which in turn caused a rise of 69% from 1.4billion rand to 2.4billion rand of expenditure into direct industries in South Africa. The partnership not only enhanced both states’ economic prosperity but also strengthened their ties.

But what happens when things go wrong? Canada’s estimated $2 billion a year revenue loss due to failed negotiations ADS with China illustrates what transpires when things do not go to plan. Canada’s former Prime Minister Paul Martin held a meeting with the Dalai Lama, angering the Chinese government and eventually leading to the breakdown of the China-Canada Bilateral Tourism Agreement.

The decision to grant visas is considered by many countries as an “exclusive right” and not a matter that can be decided upon by the destination country. China, however, is an exception. Not only does the country reverse the system of visas on its head, but they retain the power to such a degree through its ADS system due to the economic prosperity and expenditure its tourists bring. China is able to use its outbound tourists as a political bargaining chip. The diplomatic leverage of its outbound tourism alone illustrates just how formidable Chinese soft power is.